Episode 337: A Great Flowering of Empathy and Fellow-Feeling

The Overthinkers tackle the Sony hack and the ethics of sharing private information online.

Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, Jordan Stokes and Matthew Wrather overthink the the Sony leaks, casual racism, the morality of sharing private information, and the effect on the economy of Middle Earth of the desolation of Smaug; and, in honor of Chris Rock, they share their own personal Top Five.


→ Download Episode 337 (MP3)

Subscribe to the Overthinking It Podcast

Want new episodes of the Overthinking It Podcast to download automatically?

Subscribe in iTunes
Subscribe with RSS

Tell us what you think!
Email us
(203) 285-6401 call/text

Your Panel

Further Reading

28 Comments on “Episode 337: A Great Flowering of Empathy and Fellow-Feeling”

  1. Tulse #

    Two comments with regards to the Sony hack discussion.

    First off, while there is some merit to the notion of the importance of private spaces, I think it is crucial to remember that these emails were corporate — they weren’t actually “personal” emails, but communications by employees using the corporate infrastructure.

    This fact has two important consequences. One, the writers shouldn’t have had the expectation that these emails would be private, as any corporation makes it clear that company emails are company property, and not truly private correspondence. Would you have been so disturbed if the IT department has leaked these messages directly to the Sony board of directors?

    Second, because these are corporate emails, they really do reflect on the corporation, and not just the individuals. Pascal is not just expressing private thoughts, she is communicating as Sony Pictures co-chairman to other staff and business partners of Sony Pictures. Pascal is acting in her corporate role in these emails, and as a result they aren’t just the private secret thoughts of one person — they are the stated views of a senior executive of a major movie studio and entertainment conglomerate.

    I’d feel far differently if Pascal had sent these same sentiments via her Gmail account to an old high school friend. In that latter case, one might make a reasonable argument about privacy and safe spaces. But if you’re a senior executive sending email to business partners using the Sony email servers, that’s a completely different matter.

    With regards to the comparison of these emails to J.Law nudie photos, I feel like once again the need for women on the podcast has reared its head. Really, I was surprised that none of the participants could actually articulate why stealing and publicly displaying a woman’s intimate photos intended for her intimate partners is worse than publishing corporate emails. I mean, you guys all have girlfriend and wives, right? Can you really not explain why someone leaking their business correspondence would be less heinous than posting boudoir photos only intended for your viewing? Saying “people like to keep their junk personal” really doesn’t cut it. Perhaps I’ve drunk too deeply of the right-thinking progressive Kool-Aid, but I was kinda appalled. You guys are great at thinking deeply about most issues, but this seems a bit of a blind spot.

    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      These are two great issues to bring up. I’ll start with the second one first.

      Time was a big issue on this podcast, as it often is. We only really got into one or two formulations of why talking about and looking at the leaked celebrity pictures is worse than talking about and looking at the Sony emails

      (Although to be fair, that wasn’t even the question we were considering — the question was, if we start from the assumption that talking about and looking at the pictures is bad, why is talking about and looking at the emails okay or even good? Similar, but different.)

      I think it was Mark who did a pretty good job on the podcast explaining two formulations of why the pictures are worse than the emails. Here was my take on what he said:

      – It reduces women’s bodies to objects for use and exploitation.

      – It is part of a systematic historical pattern of exploitation, abuse and oppression.

      I might have taken issue with them, but it’s not that they’re incorrect. They’re totally correct.

      But the rest of the conversation spun out to talk about how difficult it is to live ethically by judging your actions by far-reaching aggregate consequences, looking for some sort of more personal way to relate to these moral questions.

      And I think those are legitimate concerns.

      But you could definitely consider a variety of other formulations of this question that lead to different ethical conversations. Here’s just a couple:

      – There’s the question of harm — that the celebrity pictures are worse because they cause more distress or hurt the person more.

      If somebody went into my work email (or the work email of a female loved one of mine), found something embarrassing, and forwarded it all over the Internet with the goal of getting me or them fired from our jobs, that would be very harmful, both materially and emotionally.

      In line with what we discussed on the podcast, I might even hope that out of courtesy and understanding of how our moral lives are affected by the erosion of privacy, my co-workers might choose not to click on such a link or might make a show of ignoring it or forgetting it – basing the decision on the reality of a world of dirty laundry.

      That all aside, maybe it’s that we’re getting old that we consider losing our jobs to be as bad if not a worse consequence. But at any rate, I think at that point making it a contest between which one of these is worse is silly; they are both very harmful.

      However, the level of harm depends on context. We shouldn’t just associate the idea of harm with them in an abstract way without looking at what the harm actually is.

      Joel McHale seems to have been helped by the Sony leaks – the preponderance of opinion finds it endearing, and he got a nice visibility bump.

      Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune were also helped by the Sony leaks – their issues with the NFL programming are legit, and I think everybody knowing about it in this way makes them more sympathetic and makes it easier to defend their drop in ratings because of pre-emption.

      Angelina Jolie seems to have been hurt and embarrassed by the Sony leaks in ways she really doesn’t deserve and has every right to be upset.

      And on the other side, we are all familiar with situations were celebrity leaked photos or videos end up being very helpful to the celebrity, making them fame and money and giving them career opportunities — both stuff released accidentally and on purpose.

      But of course we can’t judge whether clicking on leaked information is going to be harmful until we click on it and read it. Which means we can’t really make decisions about whether or not to click on something based on the harm that clicking on it will cause.

      And this is also putting aside the whole giant free rider/collective action problem of the actual harm caused by one person clicking on it being next to nothing. You could go into the game theory math on that and probably find some interesting stuff.

      (btw, on the podcast my understanding is we were talking about sharing and talking about and clicking on things that are already in broad circulation, rather than actually causing the security breaches and initially leaking the files — I hope everybody understands that that’s terribly heinous in whole other ways).

      I also think that with the pictures, there is a bigger gap between public and private individuals than with the work emails in terms of additional harm.

      Celebrities are already being constantly stressed out by people constantly taking pictures of them without their permission and sending them all over the place. Exposing somebody who is not normally in that environment to it could be a new extreme pain.

      This then raises another uncomfortable issue with utilitarianism, which is that if things are already really bad, it’s sometimes hard to calculate whether it even matters if you make things worse. And that to me intuitively seems like a poor basis for an ethic.

      So, yeah, there’s the argument from harm. And I think that’s tricky.

      – Then there’s the argument from intention and the rational will. That clicking on and talking about the pictures is worse because the intention of them is to be private to a greater degree than text conversations, and because the will that gives force to these intentions is of moral value.

      This is similar to Mark’s argument from use and exploitation, although I like it a bit more because it’s more about individual people and less about big social forces.

      But this also runs into the practical problem that we don’t know what the intention behind things online is until we click on them.

      One argument this gives rise to that I think is interesting is that it is wrong and bad to misrepresent the intentions of any piece of content in an online headline, because if we don’t have confidence that content is what it says it is, then we can’t make moral decisions about whether it was intended to be shared or not, and thus we are driven into situations where we disrespect and wrong each other from lack of context or understanding.

      And yes, you can say, in this one instance, it is really obvious that things weren’t intended to be clicked on by you. But if we’re not in the habit of making decisions on that basis at all, and if we’re regularly deprived of the information necessary to make those decisions in a reliable way, it becomes easy to shame people for doing it but hard to expect people to actually live within this ethic.

      As it is, there seems to be broad agnosticism about the intention behind shared content — people just resolve not to know or care, because we are constantly being misled and manipulated. It is perfect, and the truest thing I’ve ever heard. At 0:45 I applauded, and at 1:21 it made me break out in tears.

      And then on top of that I kind of take issue with the assumption that intimate pictures are necessarily, in their nature, more private than emails sent in confidence. I take issue with the assumption that all intimate pictures are intended to be private in equal and absolute measure. I think there we get into Jordan’s argument, which is that it’s easy to just assume this is true without looking at it critically, because it concerns sex, and sex makes people morally alarmed whenever it shows up.

      Oh, I think it’s wise to act from the assumption that you shouldn’t be looking at other people’s intimate pictures without their permission, definitely. But you also shouldn’t be reading their email.

      – There’s the question of legal property — which you bring up as well, and I’ll address that in a separate reply, because it’s complex and interesting. That if you send a message through Sony’s email system, you don’t own it. Whereas if you upload an image of your girlfriend to your iCloud account (on purpose or by accident, just don’t read the terms of service), you own it. And thus by clicking on the latter, you are stealing from that person, whereas if you click on the former, you are not.

      This was what I was talking about when I talked about Napster and piracy — in practice, spare few people actually respect property rights online, and I don’t think people generally use this information to make decisions. Personally I find this wrong and offensive, and I’ve done what I can over the years to try to fight against it (even deleting Napster and all my mp3s when I was a freshman in college), but I’m no saint.

      And if this is really the argument, then a movie that says, in giant font right up front, THIS IS MY PROPERTY DO NOT COPY IT ONLINE I WILL CALL THE FBI, is pretty unambiguously worse to click on and look at than a cell phone picture linked to without context.

      And yet, there seems to be an intuitive sense that certain owned things are owned more than others, or that things that are owned by individuals are owned differently than by businesses, but really for me all this says is that you’re not really using respect for legal property rights as a basis to make this decision.

      This is not to say it’s irrelevant, but more that when people get on their high horses about it on the internet, they usually don’t have a ton of credibility — especially when it comes in think pieces from shameless content aggregators who wouldn’t know somebody else’s property if it hit their homepage in the face and delivered them 100,000 uniques.

      And even then I’m not sure the disctinction here between the celebrity images and the corporate emails is all that strong with regards to the individual online clicking on them or talking about them.

      – And then there’s an ethical rights argument, distinct from the legal rights argument.

      This is I think the most obvious argument and also kind of the least interesting — that you have a moral right to not have people look at your private pictures of yourself that is greater than the right to not have people read your work email.

      Rights are a political device, they are a rhetorical device, and they get bandied about a whole lot. In this case, I get it. I understand. But rights are also a huge exercise in question-begging. Where does this right come from?

      And then that is again a very complex argument, because different rights come from different places and mean different things. There are positive rights and negative rights (the right to live versus the right to not be killed), or natural rights which invite entire further conversations about what nature is and whether it matters.

      I don’t mean to dismiss this; I think it’s really important, and I think it’s where you eventually find what you want on this — the intuitive, obvious sense that the pictures are worse than the emails.

      But I’d also encourage a further critical consideration of this intuitive conclusion. Where does it come from and why?

      – And actually I’ll add one more consideration — which is that we conflate conversations about ethics and emotions a lot. And really maybe this isn’t about what’s right or wrong, but about feelings and the validation of feelings.

      Jordan and I talked about this after the podcast — how I often feel like I come up short on serious ethical conversations because I’m a sentimentalist and can never get away from it. And he pointed out that this is as true for almost anybody — that we start from how we feel, and then we employ our arguments to find our way there and validate it.

      So maybe the worse thing we did was not to inadequately articulate why the pictures were bad. Maybe the worse thing was not to take a moment to emotionally validate people’s sense of hurt and violation around it, which is real and legit and matters, even if it happened a long time ago and seems tired and obvious.

      And the shortcoming here with regards to not having women on the podcast is not about women being emotional, of course, it’s about having a different perspective and thus being able to talk about an issue in a way that validates other people’s feelings about it who might be more similar to you. And I get that. I understand it.

      There’s even more to go into here, but I hope this helps show we care.

      • Tulse #

        Pete, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that you guys don’t care — you are all profoundly humane and thoughtful folks. I was just suggesting that, in the cut and thrust of the discourse, that didn’t come through regarding the one particular issue as well as it could have, and as well as I know you all could address in other circumstances.

        Your response is very thorough and dense, and I won’t address all the points, but I will make two comments. Regarding the issue of intimate photos, I don’t think the concern is just because people are alarmed about sex. You’re absolutely right that not all intimate images have the same expectation of privacy — certainly pornography is a legitimate business (whatever one’s personal stance on it), and the performers there have every expectation that their images will be public. Likewise, various celebrities at various times have had “personal” videos released with far more explicit activity than J.Law’s photos, and the public reaction has been largely a shrug (see Kardashian, K. and Hilton, P.). I think that in the particular instance of these photos, there was a sense that the individuals were truly victims, that there was never any intent that the images be released, and that their release would cause these persons mental harm. In other words, Jennifer Lawrence is a much nicer girl than that Paris, who is no better than she should be — yeah, perhaps there’s some inherent judgement about their personal lives here as well.

        So I think it is a bit glib to simply say that the outcry over the images was because we get freaked out by sex. I think the issue instead is that there was an outcry because we thought that those affected would be significantly harmed because they want their sex lives private.

        As for the Sony email breach, one issue that I don’t believe you dealt with directly is that these emails were sent by a Sony executive acting in that capacity, and not acting as a private individual. It’s not just that Pascal shouldn’t have expected that the messages would be private, it is also that the messages aren’t really from Pascal, but from Sony Pictures. I think that makes an enormous difference as far as the notion of a “safe space” for expressing distasteful views. What someone says as one private citizen to another perhaps should have that kind of charity, but I don’t see any need for corporate speech to be granted such leeway. If the co-chair of a major entertainment company says racist things as part of their business dealings, I don’t think it is a violation of their privacy to make those public. At worst, it is perhaps a violation of Sony’s corporate privacy, but if Pascal makes those statements in her capacity as a Sony executive, the statements in a real sense aren’t just hers, but Sony’s. (Presumably, for example, if Sony had published these emails as part of firing her, we wouldn’t consider that a breach of her privacy.)

        The divide between public and private persona is always murky at best, and in these days where so much of our lives are lived in an online liminal world of spaces that seem semi-private but can be easily seen publicly, the distinction may be all but obliterated. With that said, though, I still think that when you are working for or representing an organization, you are not acting in a truly private capacity (or at least, not in your private capacity). Pascal should have known that.

        I also find it curious that the debate around privacy is largely precisely because she said distasteful things. If the email breach had instead just released banal emails of her arranging meetings and discussing contract terms, I doubt we wouldn’t be so exercised about her privacy being violated. In other words, it isn’t the violation of privacy per se, but rather what it reveals about her, that seems to be in contention.

        I do think these are all fascinating problems, and I am delighted that the Overthinkers wrestled with them, however far corporate cybersecurity breaches may be from the usual fare of the podcast.

        • Amanda #

          I’m sorry if what I’m about to write ends up being just a summary of what Tulse has already said much more eloquently in his comment, but I had to respond to this thing Pete wrote specifically:

          “And then on top of that I kind of take issue with the assumption that intimate pictures are necessarily, in their nature, more private than emails sent in confidence. I take issue with the assumption that all intimate pictures are intended to be private in equal and absolute measure. I think there we get into Jordan’s argument, which is that it’s easy to just assume this is true without looking at it critically, because it concerns sex, and sex makes people morally alarmed whenever it shows up.”

          Sorry, but this is making me cringe as much as the cringiest bits of the episode (and you guys know I love the podcast, but this week there were MANY). It is absolutely normal to assume that a random nude selfie is necessarily more private than a corporate, workplace email. A picture someone took in order to share with their significant other and probably no one else, not even a close group of friends (I don’t believe it’s a huge stretch to think of nude selfies in this way for the most part), is absolutely more private than an email that, while addressed to one specific person, may also end up being read by a random IT guy and which ultimately “belongs” to the corporation the sender works for.

        • Stokes OTI Staff #

          I feel a reflexive need to nitpick your characterization of what I said as “the outcry over the images is because we get freaked out over sex.” But maybe I shouldn’t — it’s close enough. I wasn’t trying to be glib about it; I’m sorry if it came off that way. Strike that: I’m sorry if I was glib.

          Would it be fair to characterize your argument as “the photos are worse because they cause so much more pain?” That’s the sense that I’m getting, but I want to be sure that I understand. If that’s right, then I’d say that I intuitively get that they cause more pain… but when I try to figure out where that intuition comes from, MY answers keep boiling down to “It’s different because it’s sex. It just is.” And that’s not an answer I’m comfortable with.

          The Paris Hilton comparison you bring up is horrifying. The idea that there’s a class of people for whom these violations are assumed not to matter, because they’re, like, “soiled” or whatever… ugh. Screw that line of thinking. But I’m not saying you’re wrong! That’s totally the way our culture is set up. I’m just saying that it’s monstrous.

          • Stokes OTI Staff #

            p.s. Hah, and look at me using “screw” as a pejorative.

          • Tulse #

            Would it be fair to characterize your argument as “the photos are worse because they cause so much more pain?”

            For my part I think so. And granted some basic premises, I think it’s pretty easy to see why. We (and I’ll use that to refer to those of us in “developed” “Western” culture) view sex, and even nakedness, as a very private matter, perhaps the most private activity we engage in. I think that’s true for both men and women.

            For women, though, sex and nakedness is especially bound up in our culture with issues of power and trust. Sharing images like this is a matter of vulnerability, which gives the recipient power over the giver. Stealing such photos and publicizing them violates trust, exposed vulnerability.

            This isn’t the case (at least not to the same degree) for simply expressed opinions, or pictures of one’s cats, or a stolen recipe.

            The Paris Hilton comparison you bring up is horrifying.

            I completely agree, but I do think it is something both terrible and interesting about the two situations. I think that the attempts at slut-shaming the victims of the photo theft (the “if you don’t want them public, don’t take nude pictures” argument) prompted such a backlash precisely because the women involved, especially Jennifer Lawrence (who seemed to be the figure focused on here) are seen as “nice” girls, as generally decent and beloved actors who didn’t “deserve” this. It makes me sad to say it, but I think the censure of the leak would not have been nearly as strong if the victims were not in that category (such as Miley Cyrus, or Kesha, or the aforementioned Ms. Hilton).

            Humans suck sometimes.

      • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

        I’m a little surprised in all this talk by the acceptance of the idea that it’s somehow OK for employers to spy on us at work and consequently somehow OK for the public to look at my email.

        Set aside that we’re talking about material that was stolen, not revealed by the putative “owner.” Whether it’s criminals with malicious intent or “some random IT guy” (eew creepy!), neither one should be reading my email, even if it has a @spe.com at the end of the address.

        The idea that these are “corporate emails”—having seen a number of them I’d dispute that characterization—and that excuses from culpability news outlets for publishing them or individuals from reading them strikes me as ex-post-facto rationalization. We want to condemn behavior we find discreditable, and so it is momentarily convenient to act as if the behavior was carried out in the public square. But as a general principle, that’s a terrible idea.

        People use their work email for all kinds of things that aren’t work-related. They do it because it’s there—because it’s a habit, because it’s the only email they have (especially relevant for older workers: my mother didn’t have a personal email until she was almost retired), because they need to remind someone to pick the kid up from day care and their employer blocks Gmail. These communications should be considered private: from IT, from one’s boss, from directors, from shareholders, from the public.

        Even in the course of doing one’s job, I still would argue that there’s an expectation of privacy in email. Sometimes I’m emailing performance reviews of subordinates, which would cause a lot of strife if revealed. Or sometimes you’re friends with coworkers. Sometimes IMs or email exchanges devolve. (Mine usually do.) At what point do your “job” interactions shade into “personal” interactions? Very difficult to say. So none of that should be spied on.

        Or here’s an example that is silly, though it could be the premise for an Orwellian dystopia: At one point, I taught at a public university; once I was sick and emailed my students to cancel class. And nothing in that exchange makes my medical status the property of the good people of the great state of California. I was doing my job; I was using company resources; and the communication should be private.

        The fact that it’s legal for employers to surveil employees—or the fact that they can or in fact do surveil them—doesn’t make the practice defensible. We spend most of our waking lives at our jobs. You don’t—at least, you shouldn’t—give up your expectation of privacy when you swipe your ID badge at the door, and the expectation of privacy is not conditioned on something as trivial as an SMTP server.

        • Tulse #

          Matt, let me start by saying that I agree that we all tend to make the implicit assumption that our business emails are at least somewhat private. And I agree that, even if they aren’t fully “private”, the only other folks who should have access to them are other members of the business. The emails under discussion were indeed stolen, and that’s shitty.

          With that perfunctory attempt to build amity performed…

          People use their work email for all kinds of things that aren’t work-related.

          Sure, and people sometimes take printer paper home, or use the company car to run personal errands, or expense meals they shouldn’t, or sneak some bottles home from the company Christmas party, or Xerox posters for their yard sale on the copier, or stock up their company laptop with porn. But that doesn’t make any of those things “acceptable use”. I really do appreciate you arguing for those who may not have other immediate outlets for such things, but I’m not sure how using a company’s resources in this way is really defensible in principle.

          (And yes, I say this as someone who posted my first response to this article at work, on the company computer. What can I say — I contain multitudes. But I also use a Gmail account for personal mail precisely because I don’t want anything personal going through the company email servers. And I’m the IT guy there.)

          And further, Pascal is not some low-wage drone borrowing the company email system to check on the kids — she is the co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Heck, she may have set out, or at least signed off on, the “acceptable use” policy for email at SPE. Apart from her gender, she’s “The Man”, and so I don’t feel that invoking those kind of class arguments works well here.

          And further on the issue of corporate representation, one can argue that this whole incident is exactly one reason that communications on corporate systems should stay “corporate” — because it isn’t unreasonable to expect that it may be seen by others outside the organization, either in a breach, or in legal proceedings, or various other foreseeable circumstances. And these communications will be taken as the communications of the company, and not of the individual. The emails we’re talking about were not from “Amy Pascal”, but from the co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, about SPE business. They expose not just Pascal, but SPE, to concerns about racism and other unsavory matters. If there were any lawsuits regarding racism at SPE, these emails could reasonably be entered as evidence. And I think that would be appropriate.

          (If Pascal had instead emailed nude photos of herself to an intimate partner and those had been intercepted, SPE wouldn’t face the same corporate impact, and I’d feel very differently about their leak.)

          And to shift to a slightly different matter, I do find it hugely ironic (and somewhat disheartening) that one of the key players concerned about piracy had such terrible cybersecurity practices.

        • Amanda #

          Matt, you said “I’m a little surprised in all this talk by the acceptance of the idea that it’s somehow OK for employers to spy on us at work and consequently somehow OK for the public to look at my email.”

          I’m not sure if this is partly directed at me, and maybe I’m cynical, but the truth is, I never even stopped to think about whether or not it’s ethical for a business to have access to employees’ emails or not, because I honestly just always assumed that’s how it is. I also haven’t actually worked at a place where I had a company email (I’ve mostly freelanced), but if I did, I guess I’d just assume it wasn’t quite “my own private gmail” level of personal/private.

          I also just went through an immigration process that lasted almost an entire year, so I kinda always figured that if the NSA/DHS wanted to look into me beyond the documentation I provided (by that I mean stuff like, well, look around my gmail) they could. I mean, I wasn’t paranoid about it, but honestly, it just felt kinda obvious that, since they have the means, they might very well be doing it anyway. That doesn’t really mean I’m ok with or approve of it, but I guess at this point I just feel kinda powerless to even be bothered about it, since my being able to live with my husband or not was basically at a foreign (to me) government’s will.

          • fenzel OTI Staff #

            “I also haven’t actually worked at a place where I had a company email”

            I suspect that most of the people in this thread haven’t had a company email, since everybody seems so cavalier about being able to read everybody else’s.

            And it’s also depressing how quick people are to other-ize people and deprive them of ethical consideration just for working for a “corporation,” as if the legal and regulatory classifications of human beings are the only ones that matter.

            “if I did, I guess I’d just assume it wasn’t quite “my own private gmail” level of personal/private.”

            You probably would at first, but it doesn’t stay that way, I guarantee it.

            This gap in perspective to me totally explains the broad misunderstanding of the conversation happening all over this thread :-)

  2. Crystal #

    Female listener checking in.

    I have to agree with Tulse and Amanda. There is a clear and obvious difference in private leaked nudes and leaked corporate emails. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a corporate email. Corporations make it clear that your emails can be read at any time. Perhaps this shouldn’t be the case, but pretty much everyone knows that it is.

    There IS a reasonable expectation of privacy in a personal email.

    Frankly, I’m appalled you guys keep defending this. The podcast reeked of nude pic stealing apologism.

    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      “The podcast reeked of nude pic stealing apologism.”

      Do you feel like we were saying that stealing the photos was an OK thing to do? This saddens me. And for the record, I reject that categorically. It was a deeeeeply not-OK thing to do. A bad thing, a wicked thing, even an evil thing. I’m pretty sure the rest of us feel the same way.

      • Crystal #

        Hmm, stolen nude pic viewing apologism might be more accurate.

        I don’t believe any of you guys actually think it is OK to steal someone’s private photos. But there was some playing down of it, like it’s not a big deal and people will just look anyway.

        • fenzel OTI Staff #

          It’s definitely not okay to steal someone’s private photos. Definitely awful. Definitely not cool. People who do that stuff are slime and should be in prison.

        • Stokes OTI Staff #

          “stolen nude pic viewing apologism might be more accurate”

          Well… I guess that would be a fairer charge. I do NOT mean to say that looking at the pictures was an awesome thing to do (which is what apologist/apologism/apologetics would usually mean). Looking at the pictures is definitely bad. But I will say this: I have a hard time pinning down exactly why it’s bad or exactly how bad it is. My intuitions on this point are disorganized and untrustworthy — which means that I tend to treat it as an exercise in moral philosophy. (Like, I might start with something like “Ok, it causes the victims pain to know that people are looking at them; therefore, we shouldn’t look at them.” But does that mean that we have to take that into account whenever we look at ANY image, no matter how it was obtained? In a hundred years, when everyone involved is dead and beyond all care, do all the pictures become fair game?) Answering these questions leads to further questions. If I start from a different entry point (i.e. “viewing the pictures is wrong because viewing stolen material is wrong, full stop,” or “the interest in these images is sexual, and engaging with someone sexually without their express consent is a form of assault, even if they never find out about it,” both of which make intuitive sense to me), these lead to awkward questions of their own. This doesn’t mean that viewing the pictures is NOT wrong! I agree, it is wrong. But it means that I find myself wanting to push back against people who are dogmatic about its wrongness. I’m not even saying “Ok, it’s bad, but it’s not THAT bad.” I’m saying “Ok, it’s bad… but how bad is it, really?”

          But even that much pushback is a kind of apology. And if I saw someone applying that kind of reasoning to an issue that I felt burning moral certainty over — “Okay, I agree that torture is bad… but how bad is it, really?” — I would be appalled. Especially if they sort of skimmed over the “torture is bad” part in their hurry to get lost in the ethical weeds.

          Long story short, if THAT’S what you meant by “apologism,” then it’s a fair cop, and I hope you’ll accept my apology for my apology. It was never our intent to offend, but I’m not going to claim that there’s no good reason for you to feel offended.

  3. Amanda #

    I’d never say I defend a workplace’s right to spy on employees. My point though is that, as a potential employee, my attitude would be to assume none of it is private in the first place, since that seems to be the case at the majority of corporations. Also, I really wouldn’t use the word spying, because that sounds like it’s implying active and continuous “cyber stalking” or something like it. What I’m talking about is that, knowing they have the means and the right to read anything you’re writing, I wouldn’t feel like they are in fact reading everything, but that they might just read any one random thing.
    Once again, that doesn’t mean I’m ok with that fact, or that I defend it. It just means that quitting and looking for a job at a company that doesn’t do that doesn’t seem feasible.

    Now, with all that established, I would just go about communicating as if everything is kinda sorta private but not really. Like if you were exchanging little paper notes in class, but knew the teacher could see what you’re doing, take your note and read it aloud at any moment. You automatically censor yourself to a degree when you don’t have the expectation of total privacy (which I’m arguing I just wouldn’t have at a corporate workplace).

    Now, to make a really dumb metaphor about it all, I’d argue the Sony emails are like the notes passed in class, except instead of the teacher catching you in the act, some rando who doesn’t even go to your school (insert Mean Girls gif here) went through the trash basket after class and “leaked” it. The nude pics would be like talking to your boyfriend in bed after sex and later finding out they had their phone turned on recording the conversation the whole time and “leaked” it.

    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      If my company wants to read my company emails, that I have sent as a representative of the company, they have every right to do so. I’m curious what your objection is. You concede that they have the “right” to do it, but at the same time you say you don’t “defend” it and you’re not “okay” with it.

      You seem to feel that in a perfect world, people would have assurances that their bosses have no way to read their work emails. That seems strange to me. My company is free to evaluate any of my work, including the emails I send while I’m doing my job. Sure, there are all sorts of issues about WHO gets to read WHAT emails and WHY (what if you want to report your boss for sexual harrassment but he can see all your messages?), but I don’t see why there should be a blanket expectation of privacy in a corporate role.

      (Of course, none of this has any bearing on the issue of hacking and publicly leaking said emails, which is indefensible.)

      • fenzel OTI Staff #

        The track a lot of people seem to be taking on this is because the company has the legal right to read internal emails, then everybody else also has the right to read them — which to me sounds like the heinous argument a lot of people had about the celebrity pictures — which was that because they took these pictures and shared them with their loved ones who uploaded them to the cloud, then they should be aware of and comfortable with the risk that they could get out and everybody could read them.

        Of course this is complicated by the de facto ethics and etiquette around corporate emails, where, yes, everybody knows they could be read by the IT guy, but everybody pretty much assumes that as part of working together, that’s just not something that’s right to do except in very specific situations. (And that, to the extent that it is done, people perform the part of not having done it as a courtesy. And that has its own role in the way this stuff is morally adjudicated.)

        Somebody asked above what would have happened if the emails had been forwarded from the IT to the board of directors. I would posit that the board of directors would respond that they don’t read these emails as part of their jobs unless there’s a pressing issue with the company, and the emails would be redirected to the right department to evaluate any risks to the company. And then unless there was some sort of relevant whistleblowing going on (which in this case it doesn’t look like there is), the IT guy would probably be fired for compromising the confidentiality of internal communications.

        People seem to assume that within corporations there’s no information security at all, or that nothing is confidential, just because the corporation retains legal cover to read the emails if necessary. But in reality it’s not just the wild west with regards to reading the emails of your bosses and coworkers.

        And even then, there’s the issue of roles — like if my boss is looking at my emails, he’s doing it for a specific reason and looking for specific things. But I am more than just an employee; I am also a human being. So hopefully my boss, as an ethical person, is going to take that into account in how he treats me, and everybody else should also take that into account as well.

        I feel like these issues are a lot more similar than they look, even though they provoke very different gut reactions — and I think that it’s wortwhile to critically examine our gut reactions and force ourselves to articulate seriously where they come from. Does being less offended by the Sony email leaks really mean they are less bad? Yes, this question might make us cringe, but that in itself is not a final judgement. Our primary goal as ethical people should not be to cringe or make others cringe as seldom as possible.

        Now, of course, there are a ton of good reasons why the pictures can be seen as worse, and we’ve articulated them in the podcast and above. But nobody seems interested in anything subtle. They want rote outrage or nothing.

        I’ve been told it’s “clear” and “obvious,” but long-time listeners will know I have alternative definitions for those terms, in line with the more talked-about “in a way” defintion:

        “Clearly” = I think this is so, but I’m not going to offer any evidence of it
        “Obviously” = I really, really want this to be so

        Both issues are about people at large not really thinking or acting ethically with regards to clicking on and publicly discussing private things, but instead responding to their own desire for entertainment. And both issues involve harming people you don’t know to a degree that you can’t really know about for sure, especially if you’re one click among milions.

        And really what my main point was is that there’s a disconnect between the way these situations are discussed ethically and how people make the decisions and behave, because consequentialism with regards to large social trends or famous powerful people we don’t know doesn’t seem to bear all that strongly on people’s behavior.

        And I was hoping we would get toward some sort of more personal basis for understanding how to approach content on the internet ethically.

        But it doesn’t look like that’s something people are interested in talking about. They mostly want to continue to be outraged and upset. Which is fine. It’s an outrageous and upsetting thing. But it’s very underthought to limit the conversation to just that.

        And again, I’m talking about the clicking on and sharing more than the hacking itself, which hopefully everybody understands is totally terrible in all cases.

        • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

          Listening to the podcast right now, so I’m late to the party. I will say, off the bat, that I’m usually a big Gawker fan. I read Gawker all the damn time and I usually am on board with their cynicism and good old leftie outrage. However, I was disappointed at how eagerly they are reprinting these emails, just for the lulz and the clickz. This isn’t an Edward Snowden situation where the public has a Right To Know. This is more of a Nightcrawler situation. Not the superhero. The Jake Gyllenhal movie.

          (If we’re keeping score, I think Gawker DIDN’T post links to the celebrity nudes, but DID post links to an ISIS beheading video.)

          • fenzel OTI Staff #

            Also, I just heard about yet another similarity between the two scandals — which is both leaks and reporting and sharing on both leaks has in both cases been broadly and publicly condemned by Seth Rogan.

        • Stokes OTI Staff #

          “…because the company has the legal right to read the internal emails, then everybody else also has the right to read them…”

          Pete, I don’t think that’s quite an accurate characterization of the position. I shouldn’t put words into people’s mouths, but I think it’s something closer to this:
          1) Stealing someone’s communications involves something kind of like a breach of trust. It’s not quite the same thing, because the trusted party isn’t the one doing the breaching. But if you think of trust as a kind of bubble or envelope that surrounds the truster and the trustee, then stealing someone’s communications means popping that bubble.
          2) Trust is kind of a sacred thing and should not be violated, even by third parties. (If this makes you roll your eyes, swap in the word “magic” for the word sacred. That’s what I do when people talk about “the sacred institution of marriage.” But speaking for myself, here, sacred fits better.)
          3) The greater the degree of trust, the worse it is to violate it. Secretly recording a conversation between two friends is bad. Secretly recording a conversation between lovers is worse. Secretly recording a conversation between a recovering addict and his/her Narconon sponsor is TERRIBLE. And so on.
          4) Because the company has the right to read corporate emails (and because the IT staff will in practice end up reading some percentage of them, etc.), and also because we simply aren’t as unguarded with our coworkers as we are with our loved ones, the degree of trust involved with a corporate account is not as high as the degree of trust involved with a personal account.

          Therefore (3 & 4), you are less of a jerk for snooping on someone’s corporate account than for snooping on their personal account.

          Maybe it’s a subtle difference, but I feel like this version of the argument can’t really be mapped onto the “cloud security sucks and somehow that’s YOUR fault” nonsense.

          • Amanda #

            Stokes is exactly right about me at least.
            “…because the company has the legal right to read the internal emails, then everybody else also has the right to read them…” is absolutely not what I’ve tried to convey.

            Stokes’s points 3 and 4 are what I was trying to say all along. They’re both leaks, they’re both wrong, but one of them is a leak of information that was never ~that~ private to begin with, since it was between co-workers, as opposed to lovers/close friends. Yes, there’s both wrong, but in a game of “you have to choose one”, would you really even consider silly work emails (however casually racist, insulting, or whatever else) to be more embarrassing than a sex tape or something like it? I mean, it’s fine if you do, but I don’t think I’m crazy in thinking you’re in the minority for that.

            And since this is something Jordan’s said on the podcast. I do not think we’re more ashamed of the sex stuff because of the, uh, sex stuff. I think we’re more ashamed of it because it’s something that, in our regular, real life, before/excluding any leaks, is already restricted to the most intimate circle of people in our lives. I mean, if you’re gonna map out a person’s connection from more intimate to less, I’d say it goes significant other, close friends, friends, acquaintances and co-workers. That was my point all along (and I’m sorry if I’m only now making myself properly understood): BOTH leaks are bad, but one leak cuts deeper, because whatever’s gotten leaked came from/happened in our deepest, most trusted circle.

          • fenzel OTI Staff #

            This is very close to what I wrote in the first comment in the thread about intent and rational will. So I totally know what you’re saying.

            But I also disagree with the last jump in it:

            “Because the company has the right to read corporate emails (and because the IT staff will in practice end up reading some percentage of them, etc.),”

            This I still think is being misrepresented, for several reasons:

            – It doesn’t actually work this way. People do not write work emails with the expectation that they are going to be read and spread around, even if that disclaimer is always out there. And in general at work you don’t read and spread around other people’s emails, and you face repercussions if you do it except for specific reasons. As Wrather said above, this is particularly true of older workers whose jobs constitute more of their social interaction and who might not even use other email accounts.

            – The corporate guidelines about the risks and legal classifications of your information are distinct from ethical considerations. Yes, the company _could_ read your emails, but _should_ they? Should you do this to a coworker who is also a human being?

            “and also because we simply aren’t as unguarded with our coworkers as we are with our loved ones, the degree of trust involved with a corporate account is not as high as the degree of trust involved with a personal account.”

            This I think is just broadly incorrect.

            Or at the very, very least, it cannot be assumed about coworkers just because they are coworkers — no more than you can assume that two people really want everything they do to be private just because they are in a relationship.

            Is everybody truly unguarded with their loved ones? Where does Thanksgiving dinner fall, relative to a particular conference call, on level of guardedness? I suspect it varies wildly person by person, even within each group.

            You should defer to that privacy, certainly, but I think here you want to err on the side of caution in both cases, as snap judgement and prejudice here might not accurately reflect what the relationship is like.

            There can be a ton of trust in confidential communication among coworkers. A lot of it is formal and codified, a lot of it is not.

            Would these two executives have been talking smack about Angelina Jolie in a way that put hundred-million-dollar projects at risk if they did not trust each other?

            A lot of the time with executives in particular, these are people who travel together, whose livelihoods depend on each other. In many cases they spend most of their waking hours in contact. They deal with each other more than with their families, and they will share things with each other they will never share with their families (mostly involving highly confidential information about business deals, but also potentially dangerous and threatening secrets).

            And there is also a bond of trust with aforementioned IT guy, where even though we all know the IT guy could send out our personal emails, we trust that he won’t.

            This is also, incidentially, why it would seem I think worse for the IT guy to leak the emails than for North Korean hackers to steal them. The IT guy was trusted more deeply not to do this, even though he had more permissions to access them.

            In particular, take the example of a group of high-ranking executives who travel to off-site conferences together, and who bring one or two IT guys with them to set up the infrastructure at the offsite. These guys and gals are especially trusted.

            There are certainly different kinds of trust that operate on separate continua with regard to their sacredness — what about a knife thrower and an assistant, or a pitcher and catcher, or a figure skating pair? What about the trust and vulnerability of being put under sedation with a doctor or dentist? I think we share deep levels of trust more frequently and with a wider variety of people than the basic assumptions of family -> friends -> coworkers might point out.

            And I know that I have more levels of encryption and security on my corporate email than my personal email. I’m probably not the only one. Its confidentiality clearly matters to somebody.

            I think that’s a reality of emailing within a structure like this, and I don’t think it can be just dismissed.

            That basically, I agree that greater trust, greater intent for privacy — that these things have importance.

            But I disagree that it is so easy _before even clicking on a link_ to determine the level of trust shared between the two people who originally shared the communication, as well as all the interrelated relationships around it.

  4. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    There’s a very interesting discussion here about what journalists ought to report; does it matter what the source was? I’m legitimately not sure what a j-school would teach. Clearly, a journalist is not supposed to personally hack Sony. But if somebody ELSE hacks Sony and puts that information on the internet, should a journalist then have a field day with all that ill-gotten information? I feel like a j-school might teach that once the information is on the internet, the journalist has every right and perhaps every OBLIGATION to report on it. A journalist, perhaps, should not be prudish about sources – all that matters is reporting the truth and using all legal means to do so. And once the information is out there…

    My GUT says writing about the stuff in this leak is immoral, but how is that different than writing about somebody’s anonymous Star Wars Episode VII rumor, or a video of Christian Bale yelling at a stagehand? If there was a story that RUMORED Sony was considering making a deal with Marvel, I wouldn’t think, “How dare they print confidential details of private negociations!” So maybe I’m just biased towards old fashioned anonymous sources and against hacking, but what’s the difference? In both cases somebody (probably) broke the law to blab something, and some journalist swooped in and wrote it up.

    But clearly, if the standard is “an entertainment journalist should not write about any information that the studio doesn’t approve,” then you’re reducing entertainment journalism to press release stenography. The “rules” (if there are any rules for journalism in any real sense) need to allow for obtaining information that the powerful would rather not be obtained.

    Another position that one could argue (not saying that it’s MY position necessarily) is that only CERTAIN types of information about Sony should be reported on. But how to we draw the line? Only write about how Sony executives hate the new Cameron Crowe movie, not their racist President Obama emails? But isn’t the president of Sony Pictures being racist news, regardless of how that information came to light?

    Maybe the question isn’t whether journalists are doing the right thing by publishing this information. Maybe it’s really a question of whether we ought to READ it. But it also seems strange to talk about there being certain news stories that are morally wrong to consume. How can reading a news story be wrong?

    AND YET… it comes back to the first episode of Black Mirror. Nobody HAD to watch the Prime Minister on TV f’ing the pig. Nobody SHOULD have watched it. But everyone did.

  5. Amanda #

    ““I also haven’t actually worked at a place where I had a company email”

    I suspect that most of the people in this thread haven’t had a company email, since everybody seems so cavalier about being able to read everybody else’s.”

    Well Pete, I’m sorry, but if you’re gonna say I’m being cavalier about the not-quite-100%-private nature of corporate email because I’ve never had one, than I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to say that I think some podcasters may have sounded a bit too cavalier about the harm (even just/especially psychological and emotional) caused to women whose intimate picture got leaked because you all, you know, don’t have vaginas.

    #SorryNotSorry (seriously though, I love you guys, and I really do believe you’re all decent people, but this truly is one of those instances where the sausage fest of the podcast seems to interfere with how the subject gets approached)

    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      I’m editing down this comment of mine because there’s no need to escalate this conversation further.

      But I will stress that the very first comment in this thread was an accusation that none of us cared about our wives or girlfriends. So please keep that in mind when considering who here is trying their best on a difficult subject and who is showing a far too cavailer attitude about saying hurtful things to people they supposedly like and care about.

      I shouldn’t have commented here at all. People have their supplemental feelings about the podcast, they get to voice them in the comments, and then the overall experience of it includes their feelings and perspective as well. I just wish it had all, from the get-go, included a bit more of, you know, a flowering of empathy and fellow-feeling.

      • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

        Pretty much impossible to top that final insight. I think we’ll leave the conversation there.